ISL 2016: Kerala Blasters FC proved they can finish strong after FC Pune City win
That was four consecutive wins at home, an ISL record, and Kerala will hope to extend it to qualify for the playoffs.
Never mind the novelty of seeing a Kerala side creating so many chances, the sight that probably had Kochi rubbing its eyes in disbelief was Aaron Hughes returning (finally!) to the starting XI after what seemed like an endless international break. A lot had happened in his absence. Kerala had conjured up two miraculous wins at home, riding on the injury time brilliance of the prodigal son and then squandered that winning momentum with a debacle in Mumbai.
A response was sought, and it was given. For Kerala, it was the watershed moment of the season and they came through it with guile and style.
There was an all-round lack of effort, composure and leadership in Mumbai - a game that could yet hurt their chances to make the playoffs because of the goal leak - but the Blasters truly put it behind like a cold on the weekend.
Hughes' presence was the key. As surprising as this may sound, the Kerala back four that started last night haven't played together much this season. When they have, they haven't let goals in. Prior to Anibal Zurdo's consolation freekick for Pune in injury time, the Josu-Hughes-Cedric Hengbart-Sandesh Jhingan consortium had gone three consecutive games without letting a goal in. And yet, on Friday they could have, several times, not because of their own mistakes but of those made by their man in goal, Sandip Nandy.
This must really be a conundrum for coach Steve Coppell now. Starting Nandy gives him the option of that extra foreign player upfield, but there are times, when the 41-year-old veteran looks a bit off the game. A clear example was when Nandy's weak punch and subsequent defensive bungling allowed Arata Izumi a gentle tap in from half-a-yard. Mehtab Hossein's physicality on the line was enough to deflect it out of play.
The oscillation in Nandy's quality also makes for uncomfortable viewing. He had a great save in the final minutes, diving to stop a Dramane Traore attempt from point blank range. And then in injury time, he was partially at fault for Pune's consolation goal too. The quality of the shot was top draw, but Nandy was completely wrong-footed, and essentially allowed the shot in from the side he had positioned himself on. Add to that his suspect handling of the high ball, which cannot inspire confidence in his defenders.
On any occasion when it was half-and-half, Hengbart and Jhingan were most comfortable booting it out of play. Not Hughes though. Hughes was calm, composed and excellent. A wall at the back and the recepient of what was probably the simplest chance to score a debut goal in the Indian Super League (ISL).
At the other end, Kerala were excellent. It was high speed, incisive passing each time they went at the visitors. On the counter, they looked devastating, terrorising Pune's high-lined all-Indian defence and yet, their two goals came from defensive errors rather than created brilliance.
Duckens Nazon, CK Vineeth and Kervens Belfort started a game together for the first time in the ISL this season, and for a while it looked a little strange to see that Coppell had decided to start a big centre forward, Mohammed Rafi, on the wing. But those doubts were done away with from the opening whistle.
Rafi was superb on the wing in the first half, doing the exact opposite of Vineeth on the other side. Vineeth was constantly cutting in from the left, narrowing Pune's back four, and putting himself in goal-scoring areas. On the other side, Rafi stretched them out, hugging the chalk for large periods of time, and belting in some good crosses too. If he had a doppelganger, at least one of those swinging crosses at the far post would've been buried into the back of the net.
There can be the singular criticism perhaps of this high speed, turbo charged Kerala frontline. Their indecision around the box. If it isn't the wrong pass, the misplaced pass or the general need to dribble longer than necessary (cough, Belfort, cough) then it's the lack of targets in the penalty area. Vineeth, Nazon and Belfort are too similar to each other. There is space for Rafi to exploit occasionally in the area, and perhaps that fluidity will add another facet to their game.
Barring injuries, and suspensions (of which Mehtab could be the first sufferer, with three yellow cards now, one away from a match ban), this is probably how Coppell will line his team up for the rest of the season. They started the season, lumbering, disjointed and looking stodgy, but this team could finish with pace and precision. A little work needed on the precision part though.
That was four consecutive wins at home, an ISL record, and Kerala will hope to extend it to qualify for the playoffs. A brief trip to Kolkata now for a game which could actually tilt either way, before they come back to end it the way it began, with a game against NorthEast United FC. If they win that then its joy all around. Their fans are treated to one more home game, and neutrals to one more game of the Kochi madness.
The 29-year-old midfielder joined ISL side ATK Mohun Bagan ahead of the 2020-21 campaign and was loaned out to Odisha FC during the January transfer window.
Stewart is freshly arriving from a Rangers squad that finished 2020-21 season unbeaten on its way to the Scottish top division title.
While the regular weekday fixture will be a 7:30 pm start, the double headers on weekends, which until last season were a 5:30 pm feature, will now move to 9:30 pm start.